2018-05-17 / Around Town

Conversation with Dee Caffari, Volvo Skipper, Trail Blazer

/By Amy Martin/

Dee Caffari speaking at the Ocean Summit in the Cape Town stopover. Pedro Martinez /Volvo Ocean Race Dee Caffari speaking at the Ocean Summit in the Cape Town stopover. Pedro Martinez /Volvo Ocean Race The Volvo Ocean Race has taken Newport and nine other global ports by storm. The real storm, however, is a tenacious, resilient British sailor who has carried the torch of advancement, opportunity and change. Dee Caffari learned to sail at 27, sailed non-stop around the world alone three times, sailed non-stop around the world alone the wrong-way (westward against the prevailing winds and currents), has set multiple speed and first records, ran the London Marathon, is one of seven skippers (Turn the Tide on Plastic) in the Volvo Ocean Race and is a bona fide trailblazer across the globe. Of course, she’s a woman. Who else could do it?

Why do you sail?

I love it. I actually genuinely love what I do. I love the fact that we get to be in a pretty privileged place. In the ocean no two days are ever the same, and now I get to share it with a group of people during the Volvo Ocean Race, so it’s even nicer.

Dee Caffari on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race Dee Caffari on board Turn the Tide on Plastic. James Blake/Volvo Ocean Race Could you explain the gender rule change and how it affects the team configuration?

The rule was a crew of nine [all-male], and an all-female boat would be a crew of 11, and a mixed boat never really kind of came up. So, to incentivize the rule change it was you can have a crew of seven [men], or you can have a crew of seven [men] plus one or two women, or you go 50/50, or you have 11 girls. Some of the other teams decided they could do it without any women, and then decided after the first leg that that wasn’t going to work. The rule has worked because every single team here is mixed [now]. But obviously, I’ve gone to the maximum. We’ve been 50/50 the whole race. The [other boats] have only one or two women.

Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race Jesus Renedo/Volvo Ocean Race Are there preconceived notions about female sailors? If so, what are they?

Massively. The guys’ argument is why would you sail with somebody that’s not as strong as one of their mates who’s 100 kilos and much stronger. And I get that some of them had never sailed with women before so they didn’t believe it could work. But I think now if you speak to them, now they’ve experienced it, they’re like, ‘actually it’s not so bad.’ There are so many jobs on a boat that all have to happen, so if you’ve put the right people in the right places it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female.

Have you experienced being treated differently from men?

Actually, when I was sailing solo my peers were very supportive and nobody really had an issue. But in this environment, I found it really quite tough. I sit in a room of six other skippers who are male, and I feel as if I shouldn’t be there sometimes.

How long does it take the crew to get conditioned to the four-hour rotation when you are on the boat?

I think all of them struggle for the first couple of days because they come off of a really nice rest, then it’s a bit full on. I think the first couple of days everyone’s a bit tired at night watch or early morning watch. Then suddenly it’s just normal. After a few days you’re suddenly realizing that if you’re not doing lots of sail changes you can have up to 10 hours off watch. So, actually, you get over being tired and you’re fine.

What’s it like having no shower, toilet or any privacy whatsoever?

It’s funny, I don’t really notice it anymore. Everybody knows everything you’re doing all the time…

For women who don’t sail, it’s hard to understand that lifestyle. Why do you subject yourself to these kinds of conditions?

I love the sport and by nature of doing the sport that’s how you live. What it does to you is reevaluate your relationship with the real world. Suddenly, when you’ve been away at sea, all you want is running water and a towel. You actually really value the basics of life. It does help put life in perspective.

What would you say to women who aspire to sail but are maybe a bit intimidated by the male influence of the industry?

The sad reality is it’s a very male dominated environment and it hasn’t changed, but it is changing. That initial step takes a lot of courage. There are a lot of initiatives that are actively helping women take that first step to go and experience sailing. Once you’ve got a bit of confidence, then actually you realize you can be on a boat with guys.

You began sailing at 27. Did you have any women that you were able to look up to in the sailing world? It seems you are a trailblazer.

There have been a few before me, but not many. You look back at the Whitbread, and Tracy Edwards led the [all] female team. Then there were some solo sailors, Ellen MacArthur and Emma Richards. I kind of feel like I did take the baton. And now I’ve got these young girls and I’m like, You guys now are role models for a load of other sailors that are looking to you...

Offshore sailing is such a physical sport. What do you do to maintain your health and prevent injury for yourself and your crew?

Illness and injury is the biggest downfall offshore because there’s very little we can do about it. You feel debilitated. It’s such a harsh environment to have an injury or an illness. You just feel like you’re a burden and you can’t do anything. It’s my biggest fear. As a skipper it’s my biggest fear of the crew. [I remind] them to help each other out, have each other’s backs, look after each other and to catch things early.

Individual sailing and team sailing are two completely different animals. Do you have a favorite? Which and why?

It’s a hard question to answer because I see the pluses and minuses of both. I like the fact when you’re solo it’s all your responsibility. But I like the fact when you’re in a team you work harder and you’re better together than you are alone.

What is your favorite race?

I’m actually being converted to the Volvo slowly, but the Vendée Globe is the biggest event for me. To go around the world on my own in that professional environment was full-on; to finish and have the race I had was awesome. But what I’m liking with the Volvo is the intensity. The intensity of how hard you can push because you’re part of a team and it’s not all you.

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